Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Country Chemist: Robert Joseph Allely

The early days of Avondale were marked by a strong sense of community, our area before the 1940s being little more than a semi-rural backwater, the typical “small town”. One story which underscores that now almost outdated aspect of life is that of Robert Joseph Allely (born c.1867). He was in business in Avondale possible only a little more than 10 years, but helped to save the community in a time of great crisis.

The only monument in our town to this man, our first local pharmacist, is the Allely Building at 2000 Great North Road. The older, two-storey section on the right hand side was the original chemist shop (ground) and dental surgery (top storey). Both were used by Allely because he was, indeed, a combination from time to time seen in his days: pharmacist, dentist, and first-aid doctor. After Dr Aitken in the previous century, he was Avondale’s second source of general medical help, Avondale’s “doctor” of the time.

Robert Allely was born around 1867, the son of immigrants from County Monaghan, Ireland, who had moved to Australia, where Allely was born. Mrs Vera Crawford told me in 2001 (while I interviewed her for Heart of the Whau) that Robert Allely was a little child on the same ship on which her grandmother MacDonald came on, the Queen of the Nations. His family apparently decided to try New Zealand around 1874 (the only time the Queen of Nations came to New Zealand).

They settled in Tauranga, where Allely became apprenticed to a pharmacist. According to Reg Combes in his 1981 book Pharmacy in New Zealand, Allely “showed a willing spirit and business aptitude, and in the late nineties became shop manager with a certificate of registration bearing the early number 548.” It was while he was at Tauranga that he would cycle forty-five kilometres over clay roads to receive tuition in dentistry in Waihi, and in time was granted authority to practice.

From there, he moved to Auckland. He declined an offer of a position in a Queen Street business, instead deciding to set up his own business in Avondale. As Reg Combes said in his article on Allely, the community doubly welcomed a man who was dentist as well as a pharmacist to their village.

In 1910 there was a wooden shop on the site at 2000 Great North Road, beside the (then) new police station. This was replaced by the brick building owned by Robert Alley in 1911. On July 22 that year, the first prescription is recorded as being filled there, on the day Allely’s original pharmacy opened. At the end of the first week, Allely began to have doubts as to the wisdom of turning down the Queen Street position, and a reliable income, for striking out on his own at Avondale. Takings for that first week were only £9. But his wife was apparently a tactful, persuasive soul. She convinced Allely to hang on and have patience with the situation. She was right. The community came to regard Robert Allely as part of the fabric of the town, and called him “Joe”.

His shop would be open until 9 pm. This meant long hours dragging between customers, so Allely invited friends to join him in the back room of the shop, and there they engaged in long, involved conversations on all manner of topics, both local and national. It became known as “The School”, and soon rumours abounded that the group might be “suspect”, a bed of conspiracy and dangerous intrigue. The local constable was sent next door to investigate and stopped to listen at the outside door to the room. During a lull on the conversation, the men inside heard a suspicious sound. Allely rose, opened the door with a rush, and found an embarrassed constable there. The policeman remained to become another member of “The School”.

Robert “Joe” Allely is a forgotten hero of Avondale. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, Allely stepped into the breach that existed in Avondale, with no resident doctor, the nearest hospital distant miles and rough roads away, and people around him living in fear of death striking them down. With volunteers, including his wife, he set up a field hospital on the grounds of the Avondale Racecourse, and called out from his shop to visit the sick in their homes, leaving his shop open and packaged up medicines on his counter for his customers to pick up. Those who could pay anything towards the cost of their medicine dutifully left money in the till. If they couldn’t, they remembered, and paid up honestly after the crisis was over.

Bruce McLaughlan, in his book Blockhouse Bay – A Village within a Town, recorded one memory from that time, about Allely, and his makeshift hospital out on the paddock: “Bob and Vera Blake were both attending school at the time of the influenza epidemic of 1918. A hospital was set up at Avondale racecourse and the local chemist of Avondale, a Mr Allely, ran it. Bob said of the epidemic: “People would go in and say, ‘Haven’t seen old Bill Brown about lately.’ So one of them’d take off and go down and they’d find old Bill Brown either dead in his hut or so ill that he couldn’t get out. And they’d get a cart and get him off to the hospital.”

According to Reg Combes, Allely standardised his formulas, made up bulk preparations, and travelled the length of the district (Blockhouse Bay, Avondale and Waterview) by bicycle with instructions on how to nurse the afflicted, and making arrangements to send the desperate cases to the emergency tent hospital he’d set up. “A Medical Officer of Health was despatched to inspect his makeshift hospital, set up in spite of regulations prohibiting such temporary quarters,” Combes wrote. ”But Robert Allely knew what he was about. The Medical Officer of Health unofficially congratulated him and gratefully left him to carry on in his own way, which he was able to do with the help of his voluntary aides.”

The district was grateful to a hard-working man who had done much to ease people through the epidemic, and helped to keep the death rate down for this area. Allely and his wife were duly presented with an illuminated address, a souvenir booklet containing the names of all the subscribers; a gold watch chain and pendent; and to Mrs. Alley a beautiful case of silver knives and forks. Arthur Morrish, editor of Avondale’s paper The News, wrote in the 25 January 1919 edition:

“The public presentation in Avondale on Wednesday evening … to Mr. R. J. Allely was a fitting tribute to a gentleman who for a period of several weeks during the late epidemic worked night and day in his endeavours to help suffering humanity. Avondale, in common with other places, was without the services of a medical man, but in Mr. Allely the district had a good substitute. His knowledge of medicine and his ability to diagnose symptoms were freely placed at the disposal of anyone needing his services, and it it no exaggeration to say that the number of visits he made to all parts of this and surrounding districts ran into the hundreds. Not one of these visits were charged for …”

The Auckland Star on 23 January 1919 reported on the presentation at the district’s Town Hall (present day Hollywood Cinema), and the comments made by Avondale Road Board chairman Mr. R. B. Nesbitt, who said, “… he was proud to be presiding at such a function, proud to be a friend and fellow citizen of a man who, through his untiring and unselfish labour had done so much for the sufferers of the disastrous epidemic. Towards the latter part of the visitation, Mr. Alley finally collapsed and had to take to his bed and it was with great difficulty his wife kept him there, for he wanted to be up and doing …”

It is sadly likely that the strain of his efforts during that epidemic took their toll on him. Early in the 1920s, he sold his business and left the district, never to return. The business he started still continues, passed from owner through the years and is now the Avondale Pharmacy. The old brick building still stands, remaining as Robert Allely’s only enduring mark upon the history of our suburb. That, and the story of the lives he helped to save in those dark days of 1918.


  1. Robert Joseph Allely was my great Grandfather ,I have a illuminated address presented to him by the residents of Avondale for his medical assistance to residents of Avondale during the flue Epidemic of 1918 Craig Allely

    1. Any chance of a photo? If you have a look at the post above, that's the address I referred to.

  2. Hello. My name is Angelica and I believe I live in the house of Mr Robert Allely here in Avondale which he later sold to Nurse Edwards which the house was then turned into a maternity hospital. It has been my family home for over 24 years and I believe your Great Grandfather's legacy continues to live on today. This may sound odd but I feel his presence or influence on this house still exists today and I am now a pharmacist and for some reason I have always wanted to be a dentist so after reading his storey I feel some sort of connection with him. I don't know much about your Great Grandfather but I admire him for what he did during the epidemic and I hope to help people like he did. The house is still strong but needs some major repairs and we hope to hold onto this special house.

    1. No, Robert Allely didn't sell his house to Nurse Edwards. Here is what is on my NZ Maternity Homes website.

      "At 6 Roberton Road, Nurse Mary Manning set up and ran “Erinville” from 1920 until her death in 1928. “Erinville” was Avondale’s most equipped maternity nursing home, having a total of five bedrooms, nursery, and birthing theatre. This isn’t that surprising, as it had been the home of Avondale’s first chemist/dentist, Robert Allely. Mothers from as far away as Kumeu had their babies at Nurse Manning’s. After her death, the property was purchased by the Richardson family, who lived there until they decided to swap over with Nurse Edwards at 1798 Great North Road. Nurse Edwards assisted women giving birth at Great North Road from 1936 to 1940, then at Roberton Road until around 1946."

      I have the land history, if you'd like to see it. Just email me.

    2. Could you please send me the land history?